Q Fever, from the agent Coxiella burnetii, is an infectious possible biological weapons agent that in its spore-like form is resistant to heat, pressure, drying and certain antiseptics. Coxiella burnetii is part of the family of Rickettsiaceae but not a true Rickettsia. There are no other species in the Coxiella genus with Legionella being its closest bacterial cousins. The organism is an obligate intracellular parasite that is naturally airborne. Although Coxiella burnetii shows low virulence and only 50% of those infected show symptoms, it demonstrates high infectivity since one organism is enough to cause the disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) classifies Q Fever as a Category B Agent.
Coxiella burnetii cannot reproduce outside host cells. Inside host cells, Coxiella burnetii reproduces through binary fission. The organism has two phases, Phase I and Phase II, and changes from Phase I to Phase II irreversibly. During Phase I, the organism has a smooth lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and in Phase II, the organism has a rough LPS, a less virulent form.
The disease was first identified and described by Australian bacteriologist Edward Holbrook Derrick in 1937. As director of the Queensland Department of Health Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology, Derrick named a mysterious fever among abattoir workers Q (Query) Fever. Derrick showed the transmission of the disease by infecting guinea pigs and mice with the blood of human victims. Macfarlane Burnet, when examining blood samples from Derrick, identified the causative agent as a rickettsia. Hideyo Noguchi may have also transmitted Coxiella burnetii to guinea pigs in the Rockefeller Institute in 1925, but in the animals, the agent was lost.
In 1938, American bacteriologist Herald Rhea Cox, when studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, isolated a rickettsia agent to what was called "Nine Mile Agent" in ticks in Montana. He cultivated the agent in embryonated hen egg's yolk sac membrane. Rolla Dyer, director of the National Institute of Health, connected American "Nine Mile Agent" and Australian Q Fever. The agent was named Coxiella burnetii after Cox and Burnet. Closely quartered troops in areas inhabited by farm animals are most vulnerable to outbreaks. The disease has been identified among American troops in the Persian Gulf and Somalia.
History of Q Fever as a Biological Weapons Agent
As a biological weapons agent, Q Fever is a highly infectious incapacitating agent. Q Fever would most likely be spread in an aerosolized cloud. Disinfection could be achieved with 0.05% hypochlorite solution (1 tbps. bleach per gallon of water). Q Fever was developed as a biological agent by both US and Soviet biological arsenals. Dr. Ken Alibek, once deputy chief of Biopreparat, developed the possible connection between an outbreak of typhus among German troops in the Crimea in 1943 and the Soviet biological weapons project.
The United States conducted human trials with Q Fever in the first study of Operation Whitecoat known as CD-22. Whitecoat was the name given to men who volunteered for the operation. The roughly 2,300 Whitecoats were Seventh-day Adventists who wished to serve the US military without having to carry arms, an act prohibited by their faith. The operation began at Camp Detrick, Maryland, in January 1955 as administrators used the 'Eight Ball,' a million liter aerosol dispersion chamber. In July 1955, at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, volunteers along with guinea pigs and monkeys stood in the desert night as Q Fever was released from generator sprays 3,000 feet away. The experiment succeeded as the volunteers came down with Q Fever. Volunteers who developed symptoms were treated with antibiotics. All recovered. Operation Whitecoat continued for almost two decades.
Q Fever was discovered along with anthrax, botulism, mustard gas, and sarin gas as a weapon in the biochemical weapons arsenal developed by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. As a biological agent, militaries favor Coxiella burnetii due to its incapacitating rather than lethal affect on human populations.
In July 2007, The CDC placed restrictions on Texas A&M's search on Coxiella burnetii after the Sunshine Project, a biosafety group in Austin, Texas, uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act that in 2006, three researchers were accidentally infected with Q Fever and the incident was not reported to the CDC as law required.
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